Writer David Rakoff worries a lot: about Sept. 11, about cancer, about epidemics and fame and religious devotion — not to mention sex, money, his childhood and the value of therapy.
The regular contributor to This American Life even worries about writing about himself, which he does in his latest collection of essays, Half Empty.
“That was the big problem for me in terms of this book,” Rakoff says. “I’ve always bridled at the term ‘memoirist’ because I always wanted to be known for the quality of my writing as opposed to the particulars of my biography — so that’s a huge worry for me.”
Rakoff, who has previously written about subjects ranging from the torments of low-thread count sheets to visiting a New Age retreat hosted by Steven Seagal, turns his signature witty style to the value of pessimism in his latest collection — but, he warns, it’s a very specific kind of negative thinking called “defensive pessimism.”
“The ‘defensive pessimist’ looks at everything and thinks [that] this is going to be a disaster,” he explains to Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “They lower their expectations … and they go through all of the negative capacities and the negative capabilities of a given event. You imagine the worst-case scenario you can and you go through it step by step, and you dismantle those things and you manage your anxiety about it.”
While writing Half Empty, Rakoff was diagnosed with cancer. His doctors told him that the cancer — a sarcoma in his neck — was caused by earlier radiation treatments he received for a bout with lymphoma in his 20s and could cause him to eventually lose his arm. Despite eschewing the powers of negative thinking, he remains optimistic about his treatment.
“I’m currently in chemo,” he says, “The hope is that chemo will shrink [the cancer] a few millimeters so that it’s no longer touching quite so many vital cables that go down your arm and than my wonderful surgeon will be able to go in and get the tumor without taking the arm. But, as they keep on telling me, no one dies from the arm. So there’s a lot of stuff you can do with one arm — like continue living. So my arm is in danger but for now, knock on wood, I’m not in danger which is a distinction worth making.”
On how research about negative thinking affected Rakoff’s own negative thinking
“I do tend to be an anxious fellow and I do tend to see the world as a little darker than perhaps it genuinely is, but I also do appreciate much more than a rosy scenario, I appreciate straight news. I appreciate honesty. I appreciate confronting something head on and being given all the details first — and then responding to them in whatever way I might. At best, it simply confirmed who I am to myself. It helps me. For me, it works.”
“Writer Melissa Bank said it best: ‘The only proper answer to ‘Why me?’ is ‘Why not you?’ The universe is anarchic and doesn’t care about us and unfortunately, there’s no greater rhyme or reason as to why it would be me. And since there is no answer as to why me, it’s not a question I feel really entitled to ask. And in so many other ways, I’m so far ahead of the game. I have access to great medical care. My general baseline health, aside from the general unpleasantness of the cancer, is great. And it’s great because I’m privileged to have great health. And I live in a country where I’m not making sneakers for a living and I don’t live near a toxic waste dump. You can’t win all the contests and then lose at one contest and say ‘Why am I not winning this contest as well?’ It’s random. So truthfully, again, do I wish it weren’t me? Absolutely. I still can’t make that logistic jump to thinking there’s a reason why it shouldn’t be me.”
On seeing friends die young during the AIDS epidemic
“Seeing so many friends who were truly young and friends of friends — you know, I’m a gay guy, living in New York City during the ’80s and ’90s during the height of the pandemic — it was like living in wartime but a very specific kind of war … it [affected] a very limited sector of the population and there were other people beside you everywhere who were not fighting it, who were not even conscious of it. It was very strange to feel so in the trenches and to be going from hospital to hospital — more than one a day sometimes — to visit people who were dying.
“It did cross my mind that my fervent will to live — and it is fervent, and it is still in operation, and it is still, in fact, the area of my life of which I’m most optimistic, and I think that people really do tend to be hugely optimistic about their own chances of survival going from day to day — but it did cross my mind and it remains in my mind that all of the people that I know who did die, they didn’t die because they want to live less than I do. They didn’t die because their desire to continue existing was found wanting in ways that my own is somehow better. And that is tremendously instructive to me.”
Excerpt: ‘Half Empty’
by David Rakoff
The Bleak Shall Inherit
We were so happy. It was miserable.
Although it was briefly marvelous and strange to see a car parked outside an office, the wide hallway used like a street, many stories above the city.
The millennium had turned. The planes had not fallen from the sky, the trains had not careened off the tracks. Neither had the heart monitors, prenatal incubators, nor the iron lungs reset themselves to some suicidal zero hour to self-destruct in a lethal kablooey of Y2K shrapnel, as feared. And most important, the ATMs continued to dispense money, and what money it was.
I was off to see some of it. Like Edith Wharton‘s Gilded Age Buccaneers, when titled but cash-poor Europeans joined in wedlock with wealthy American girls in the market for pedigree, there were mutually abusive marriages popping up all over the city between un-moneyed creatives with ethereal Web-based schemes and the financiers who, desperate to get in on the action, bankrolled them. The Internet at that point was still newish and completely uncharted territory, to me, at least. I had walked away from a job at what would undoubtedly have been the wildly lucrative ground floor (1986, Tokyo) because it had seemed so boring, given my aggressive lack of interest in technology or machines, unless they make food. Almost fifteen years later, I was no more curious nor convinced, but now found myself at numerous parties for start-ups, my comprehension of which extended no further than the free snacks and drinks, and the perfume of money-scented elation in the air. The workings of “new media” remained entirely murky, and I a baffled hypocrite, scarfing down another beggar’s purse with creme fraiche (flecked with just enough beads of caviar to get credit), pausing in my chewing only long enough to mutter “It’ll never last.” It was becoming increasingly difficult to fancy myself the guilelessly astute child at the procession who points out the emperor’s nakedness as acquaintances were suddenly becoming millionaires on paper and legions of twenty-one-year-olds were securing lucrative and rewarding positions as “content providers” instead of answering phones for a living, as I had at that age. Brilliant success was all around.
So, so happy.
The surly Russian janitor (seemingly the only other New Yorker in a bad mood) rode me up in his dusty elevator in the vast deco building in the West Twenties, which was now home to cyber and design concerns that gravitated to its raw spaces and industrial cachet. The kind of place where the freight car and the corridors are both wide enough that you’d never have to get out of your Lexus until you’d parked it on the fourteenth floor.
Book publishing is always portrayed as teddibly genteel and literary: hunter-green walls, morocco-bound volumes, and some old codger in a waistcoat going on about dear Max Perkins. Worlds away from the reality of dropped-ceiling offices with seas of cubicles and mail-cart-scarred walls. But the Internet companies were coevolving with the fictionalized idealization of themselves. The way they looked in the movies was also how they looked in real life, much like real-life mobsters who now behave like the characters in the Godfather films.
The large industrial casement windows were masculine with grime, looking out over the rail yards on the open sky of West Side Manhattan. The content providers sat side by side at long metal trestle tables — the kind they use in morgues — providing content, the transparent turquoise bubbles of their iMacs shining like insect eyes. It was a painfully hip dystopia, some Orwellian Ministry of Malign Intent whose sheer stylishness made it a pleasure to be a chic and soulless drone; one’s personal freedoms happily abrogated for a Hugo Boss jumpsuit.
I was there to interview the founders of a site that was to be the one stop where members of the media might log on to read about themselves and the latest magazine-world gossip, schadenfreude-laden items about hefty book advances and who was seen lunching at Michael’s, etc. I will stipulate to a certain degree of prejudicial thinking before I even walked in. I expected a bunch of aphoristic, McLuhan-lite bushwa, something to justify the house-of-cards business model. But as a reporter, I was their target audience as well as a colleague. I was unprepared to be spoken to like an investor, as if I, too, were some venture capitalist who goes goggled-eyed and compliant at the mere mention of anything nonnumerical. I was being lubed up with snake oil, listening to a bunch of pronouncements that sounded definitive and guru-like on the surface but which upon examination seemed just plain old wrong.
“What makes a story really good and Webby,” said one, “is, say, we post an item on David Geffen on a Monday, and then one of Geffen’s people calls us to correct it, we can have a whole new version up by Tuesday.” This was typical Dawn of the New Millennium denigration of print, which always seemed to lead to the faulty logic that it was not just the delivery system that was outmoded but such underlying practices as authoritative voice and credibility, fact-checking, editing, and impartiality that needed throwing out, too. It was a stance they both seemed a little old for, frankly, like watching a couple of forty-five-year-olds in backward baseball caps on skateboards. In the future, it seems, we would all take our editorial marching orders from the powerful subjects of our stories and it would be good (Right you are, Mr. Geffen!). It was a challenge to sit there and be told that caring about such things as journalistic independence or the desire to keep money’s influence at even a show of remove meant one was clinging to old beliefs, a fossil in the making. Now that everything and everyone was palliated by the never-ending flow of revenue, there was no need to get exercised about such things, or about anything, really.
“We basically take John Seabrook’s view that what you have is more important than what you believe. Whether you drive a Cadillac says more about you than if you’re a Democrat or a Republican,” said one, invoking a (print) journalist from The New Yorker.
Added the other: “That you watched The Sopranos last night is more important than who you voted for.”
They weren’t saying anything terribly incendiary. It’s not like they were proposing tattooing people who have HIV the way odious William F. Buckley did (I’m sorry, I mean brilliant and courtly, such manners, and what a vocabulary! Nazi . . .). But we had just been through an electoral experience that had been bruising, to say the least. Who one voted for had almost never seemed more important, and they were saying it all so blithely. I felt like a wife who has caught her tobacco-and-gin-scented husband smeared in lipstick, a pair of silk panties sticking out of his jacket pocket, home after an unexplained three-day absence, listening to his giggling, sloppily improbable, and casually delivered alibi and being expected to swallow it while chuckling along.
We were silent for a moment, the only sound the keyboard tappings of the hipster minions. I finally managed to say, “I’ve just experienced the death of hope.”